May 6, 2018
Pyonyang North Korean Restaurant is an international chain of restaurants run by the North Korean state. I read about it online and decided to keep an eye out for opportunities to visit one. It’s understandable that the chain isn’t in every country as its profits go directly to funding North Korea.
So there’s a moral dilemma in patronizing it, sure, but I decided I really wanted to see it. I think it’s the closest I can get to actual North Korea as we currently know it. And I don’t mean geographically, or general Korean cultural. I mean like North Korea. I’m fascinated by the place because it is so closed off and mysterious. What is life really like there? It’s probably not as bad a US propaganda says, but also not as good as NK propaganda says. We are fed this idea that NK is some terrible dystopia but the photos that are allowed to make it out of the country just look fantastic. I would love to be able to see it for myself. Even an official guided visit (like this guy got) would be just fascinating.
Not that it would ever happen though. It’s just a day dream, but that’s why I really needed to visit this restaurant. And maybe my financial contribution is going to support our countries’ temperamental leaders working something out in the near future. Wouldn’t that be neat.
Ok, so I was resolved to go, and Phnom Penh happens to have a Pyongyang restaurant. On one of our last nights in PP we made plans to go with a friend, an expat in PP teaching English. I read up about the restaurant in advance by looking at reviews and learned two things. First it is expensive, at least by Cambodian standards, so I was able to mentally prepare for that. Second, it’s really more of a “dinner and a show” sort of deal.
I called to make a reservation for slightly before the show started, to ensure that we got the full experience. I called the number listed on Google maps, and got bounced around until I got the English-speaking phone number. I told them I wanted to make a reservation at 6:45 that evening (the show was supposed to start at 7 pm). She said ok and was about to hang up. “… So the reservation should be for Dan Ott that’s o-t.’ ‘Sure’ *click*’
It was ok though. When we showed up we were the only white people there so who made the reservation turned out to be pretty obvious. As far as I could tell most of the other guests were Chinese. There was definitely a Chinese tour group next to us that came in late, were all served the same dish, and then left early.
The restaurant itself kinda looks like an Elks club that got set up for a wedding for a second marriage. The staff was all female and they were wearing floofy traditional dresses that feature in some of the photo albums linked above also. Christina got one picture before being told no photographs allowed (see the concerned lady in the blue floofy dress below).
Next up was the task of ordering. We were given one absolutely enormous menu that took us forever to leaf through. This appeared to be unexpected behavior to our waitress. She hovered over us the whole time and appeared to be writing things down. It was a bit strange; I think she may have been writing down everything that we pointed at or discussed. Eventually we got a order ironed out consisting of kimchi, kimchi pancakes, a seafood porridge, cold glass noodles, and a beef stew. I was quite interested in ordering dog meat, but our companion on this journey was quite appalled at the concept when she saw it on the menu so I didn’t bring it up.
Before our dishes arrived we were served appetizers of a yeasty dough cube and some saucy cold potatoes. Then food that we ordered started to roll out. The kimchi was very strong and the kimchi pancakes were absolutely the best thing. I found the porridge a bit weird. I don’t really like seafood soups, but this was alright. In general it was more of Christina’s thing.
The cold noodles seemed to be the most popular or typical food to order. Probably a very distinctly North Korean dish. They were served on a very unique raised platter. The waitress mixed up some very horseradish-y mustard in the dish before allowing us to dig in. She also left the mustard on the table, which I found delicious and put on everything I could until she came back to take it away.
This mustard incident turns out to be quite interesting in view of this video of N Koreans trying American BBQ and saying that mustard is not a thing in NK. The noodles themselves were super rubbery and slippery so they were basically impossible to serve from the platter into individual bowls. Once you started on a noodle there was no option to bite it off, you had to find the end of the trail. The best main dish, imo, was the beef stew. It was very tender and spicy.
But the food was actually only a part of what was overall and beautifully weird experience. Basically after the first dish was served, the show began. It started with an extremely enthusiastic drummer. She wasn’t super tight, but she was so smiley and energetic and it was great entertainment. Then the show moved onto a few other acts. All the while, the meal is continuing with new dishes being brought out between acts. Quickly it became obvious that the show was being performed by the serving staff, who if they weren’t playing instruments or spinning plates on stage, were busy juggling serving their tables.
The other acts included some traditional singing and dance, a women spinning with extreme angular velocity while carrying bowls on her head, a Korean stringed instrument, a violin… all sorts of stuff. The best was when the accordion player came out. Then she was joined by another accordion player. Then a third. Oh shit, it was the drummer girl! Is there anything she couldn’t do? Though at this point I became a bit skeptical of whether or not they were actually playing their instruments. Our friend shared my skepticism. But I didn’t care either way. It was great entertainment.
The finale was quite a spectacle. It was a North Korean waitress rock band with sax, bass guitar, guitar, accordion, and drums performing a rock version of the 1812 overture …in Cambodia. It was one of the more bizarre, amazing, multicultural things we have ever witnessed. I highly recommend it.
The meal and the show was over and so it was time to pay up and clear out. Our server was the drummer and we tried to convey our delight with her musical talents, but it appeared that she only spoke a few words of English, which is perhaps not too surprising. We tried to give her a tip, it seemed appropriate given the hard work of the waitstaff, but when she saw the money in the bill holder she shook her head, left it on the table, and scurried off.
In the end, the bill for the three of us was $33; very affordable in US terms, astronomical in Cambodian terms. It was nice having a third person because we got to share more dishes. We were all very well fed and the experience, show, and general novelty was excellent.
With the bill settled it was time to leave, but I had one final mission. We were seated in a kind of corner of the restaurant, a bit behind a pillar. It wasn’t a great seat, but fine enough. Directly behind us was a display rack featuring a bunch of insam (ginseng) products and liquors on the shelf. Oh if I had the money I would have definitely bought so much stuff. But there were also stacks of books. Little pamphlets of different colors. I poked through them at one point and came to the understanding that they were propaganda written in different languages.
Eventually I found an English one, the only yellow one. It was a collection of anecdotes from Kim Il Sung’s Life. As we were leaving I tried to ask a waitress about them. There was some confusion, but they eventually understood that I wanted one. They said I could have it for free. The last English language copy. Yes! I was so pumped. I’m surprised they didn’t hand them out to all the guests. Seems like a good way to spread your message. Anyway I’m really glad I got it. It’s fascinating, full of stories about the stout resolve and wisdom of the leader, and hard working citizens getting choked up with emotion for the glorious generosity displayed by him. The front end is full of pictures of smiling workers meeting with the man himself. An incredibly interesting look at how NK wants to be perceived by the rest of the world.